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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Code of Practice for Examining Officers) Order 2001, which was laid before this House on 16th January, be approved.--[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Question agreed to.

12 Feb 2001 : Column 129


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [31 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [23 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

12 Feb 2001 : Column 130

Rail Freight

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

10.29 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I compliment the Government, the Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), and his ministerial colleagues on their positive and constructive approach to rail freight. They have shown that they believe that rail has a significant and growing role to play in freight transport in Britain, which is most welcome. For many decades, Governments gave little serious attention to rail freight. It has been the poorest of poor relations in the transport fraternity, while the development of road transport has dominated departmental thinking and grown at an extraordinary rate.

Rail passengers have been the Government's and industry's prime concern, perhaps understandably because they have votes and freight containers do not. As a daily rail commuter, I want a first-rate passenger service, too. Sadly, we have seen in recent weeks that the transportation of people has had its own problems. Those, too, seem set to continue. Our Government have, however, recognised that increasing the amount of freight carried by rail is important for the future and that roads alone cannot take the whole strain of ever-increasing freight volumes. Roads will continue to have the major share of freight traffic and it is unrealistic to imagine that rail will replace road as the primary freight mode. However, the proportion taken by rail should be substantially increased.

I wish to raise three concerns. First, the Government's targets for rail freight are too modest. Secondly, current investment in rail freight is too low, even to achieve the Government's modest targets. Thirdly, Railtrack is not taking rail freight seriously in any case, believing, I suspect, as many have before, that rail freight is inherently uneconomic. Rail freight is commercially profitable elsewhere in the world, even over quite short distances, and can be so in Britain with the right investment.

In their 10-year plan for railways, the Government have established a target of increasing rail freight by 80 per cent. over that decade. That is 8 per cent. per year in simple terms and equivalent to 6 per cent. compound annual growth. That must be set against predicted annual growth in total freight traffic, which would mean that the proportion of freight carried by rail would rise from 7 per cent. to around 10 per cent. A rise of 3 per cent., even if achieved over that 10 years, would still be too small and shows that 80 per cent. of not very much is still not a lot. The Government should therefore raise their sights and set a considerably higher target for rail freight over the next 10 years.

There are a number of reasons for that. The road system will not be able to cope with the likely volumes of freight that we should anticipate for the future. Indeed, the roads have difficulty coping now. If we wish to develop an efficient freight transport network, we must make greater use of rail. The freight transport industry should be developed as a coherent whole, with the full support and co-operation of hauliers and railway operators. Co-operation, not competition, must be the way forward, with rail providing a service to hauliers tailored to hauliers' needs.

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Another major reason for increasing rail freight more substantially is that large parts of the economy, and those that are faring less well, will need better freight transport links with the continent of Europe, in particular, if they are to prosper. The north, the midlands, Scotland and Wales must have reliable commercially economic freight links with Europe if they are not to suffer because of their geographical peripherality. Choked roads and unreliable freight links to the ports and channel tunnel will be an increasing disincentive to investors in the English regions and in Scotland and Wales. However, new freight links providing regular and dependable services, especially through the channel tunnel to the continent, could throw an economic lifeline to the industrial heartlands of Britain.

Hauliers tell me that what they really want is a dedicated lorries-on-trains service through the channel tunnel. Indeed, I have been informed this weekend that one haulier could use one whole train each way between Germany and Britain every day.

A less obvious reason for increasing the proportion of freight carried by rail is the enormous cost of road repairs and the congestion that they cause. The Under-Secretary of State will, I am sure, be familiar with the fourth power law linking axle weight to road wear. That states that road wear is proportional to the fourth power of axle weight. Thus, doubling axle weight increases road damage by 16 times and tripling axle weight increases it by 81 times. A lorry axle weight may be several times that of a motor car, causing many times the amount of road wear. Lorries have to travel on roads, but shifting thousands of them on to rail every day will be beneficial in public expenditure terms as well as environmentally.

Road repairs cost the Exchequer many millions every year, as well as causing bottlenecks, congestion and delays on the trunk road network, bringing frustration to hauliers and car drivers alike. EWS, the rail freight company, recently drew attention to a Confederation of British Industry estimate that congestion costs the economy £15 billion a year. Taking a larger proportion of road freight off the roads and putting it on to rail would save considerable sums in roads expenditure and save time, fuel and costs for road hauliers.

My second concern is that investment in rail freight is inadequate to meet even the Government's own targets. It seems clear now that the existing strategic rail network is going to have its work cut out simply coping with future growth of passenger traffic. I understand that there are significant and worrying problems on the west coast main line with capacity, signalling and investment needs. Passenger traffic will take pride of place and crowd out freight--especially the serious, long-distance, heavy freight, and most notably international freight using the channel tunnel route.

Writing recently in "Rail Freight Group News", my noble Friend Lord Berkeley said that there is already competition between freight and passenger traffic for existing rail capacity. It is time, he says,

In any case, high-speed passenger services and much lower-speed freight traffic do not mix. Freight trains have to wait for slots or travel at night. That is not the type of service that will be attractive to hauliers. In Germany,

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an experiment was tried recently sending freight trains on high-speed passenger lines at night, but it was later abandoned as a failure.

There is also the gauge problem. It is currently not possible to carry full-size lorries on the backs of trains on the British rail network. A lorries-on-trains service would need new, purpose-built lines. That is already happening on the continent of Europe, notably in southern Germany, and a dedicated freight line is being built from Holland to Germany. The specific investment difficulties should be set in the context of our historically low levels of railway investment. The French and Dutch have specifically invested between two and three times as much in railways as we do in Britain each year, and--goodness me--it shows.

I am informed that the amount of track repairs and modernisation currently being undertaken by Railtrack, even in the current crisis, is barely more than the normal amount of track work that was undertaken in the days of British Rail. If we are serious about rail freight, we have to think much bigger and be much bolder. According to the Rail Freight Group, Railtrack cannot even accommodate today's rail freight on the west coast main line, north of Crewe, once the Virgin tilting train timetable comes into force. It might even sell off all the additional 42 paths south of Rugby to passenger train operators.

My third concern, therefore, is that I am unconvinced about Railtrack's commitment to rail freight. There are optimistic noises in public, but an article by Railtrack in this month's "Railfreight Handbook" is significant. It states:

note the conditional--

That betrays a lack of confidence that even the Government's modest 10-year target can be achieved. With more time, I could provide more statistical and anecdotal information, and I shall do so later, in writing, to my hon. Friend the Minister.

It is clear that what Britain needs is new, dedicated freight line capacity providing full-scale lorries-on-trains services between strategic centres in Britain and the channel tunnel. Such a scheme has been proposed, and my hon. Friend will not be surprised when I refer him to the proposals made by Central Railway. That scheme will provide a spinal link from the north of England, skirting London and then on to the channel tunnel. Perhaps an aorta might be a more appropriate metaphor.

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